The other day I met my friend who is also my old Tai Chi Sifu at the Raven Cafe in downtown Port Huron. I have not seen him since June of 2020 when we were in the middle of the “covid” debacle. After catching up with our lives we got into a conversation about the different stages of training in the martial arts. It was so refreshing having a conversation that did not involve covid, the great reset or the scandals in the Vatican. This morning while I was drinking my morning coffee I was reflecting on our conversation and the stages of a student and how this applies to the spiritual life.
The first stage is the “Beginners’ Stage” in which the student is raw, fresh, knowing nothing about forms, technique, or philosophy. They come filled with a sense of awe, wonder and enthusiasm about what they are learning. As they progress, they begin to realize that what they are learning takes allot of practice, discipline, and perseverance. Unfortunately, it is at this stage that many drop out of the martial arts but those few who go on will eventually progress into the “Intermediate Stage.”
In this stage the student knows the forms, the techniques and the history and philosophy well enough but now he has to work at honing his skills. He practices and trains harder, he enters competitions to execute his various form while under pressure and spars with students from other schools. Unfortunately, it is in this stage that the student’s ego can become inflated. He begins to think he is a “bad ass,” that he has achieved the prize and that he does not need to learn anything else. He may even think he is better than his teacher and go off on his own and open his own school. Many of the instructors in your neighborhood martial arts school have never progress and remain in this stage, sometimes for the rest of their life. They are the type of teacher whose focus is on competition, fighting and beating the other guy and worse, on making money. They never help their students develop good character or the virtues or to cultivate a deep spiritual center. Instead of the “peaceful warrior” they often become a self-centered, cruel warrior.
Those small handful of students who manage to rise above their egos will slip into the “Mature Stage” They no longer have that intense drive to be better, faster, and more powerful than the other person. They no longer think of themselves as a “bad ass” but they mature into a humble person. They have come full circle in life and in their training. This is often referred to as “the beginners mind.” You no longer have anything to prove, nothing to achieve except peace and harmony. You once again can have a sense of awe, wonder and enthusiasm but not so much about the martial arts but about the beauty of life. You can see beyond the drab colors of everyday life and see the splendor and radiance that lies just below the surface of the mundane. C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien called this the “secondary world,” the world of “faerie” and imagination. The beauty of this secondary world is what our primary world should be but our world is a “fallen world” and tainted with sin and today we see men and women with diabolical intent trying to highjack God’s creation and imprison us in their cages and make us slaves to their “great reset.” Those who achieve this third stage become “Sages” and are humble, peaceful, and in tune with the spiritual world. They become the mentors, the guides, and the teachers of the next generation. They hold all the knowledge, traditions, and rituals of the past and pass these on to others.
From my martial arts training I believe these three stages can also be applied to the Catholic life. I would sum up my experience this way. I would say that I was given a great gift and a great responsibility to live a spiritual life in a crazy world. I came to the spiritual life innocent, filled with wonder and awe. I read, studied, fasted and prayed as my way of training. I then passed through a period in which I became “holier than thou” but with the Grace of God I proceeded into the third stage and hopefully have become a wise and humble person. This is not an easy task and this training that we are engaged in is what the desert monks called “askesis,” the strict self-discipline or self-control to cultivate our mind, body, and souls and turn our hearts towards God. I refined my mind and body and kept healthy through my Tai Chi training and I refined my soul through meditation, prayer and the doing of good deeds. This is how I personally worked out my salvation for myself. I fail miserably at times but I keep trying none the less.
We must always be on our guard for we are in a fight for our life. Our body is sacred and is a citadel that contains the Holy Spirit and we must be the “Watchman” standing guard to ensure that the enemy does not enter this sanctuary. The enemy uses our “passions” to break through our defenses. These are all the lower sensual energies that keep us from attaining a higher spiritual level. Our weapon is to cultivate the higher spiritual virtues. This is what we must cultivate in our daily practice. We are warriors and a warrior must train every day to keep his mind, body, and soul in shape and on the ready. These are the lessons that I have learned from my Tai Chi training and bring to my Catholic life.